Moral Relativism: The Rise Of The Individual Conscience
We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on Moral Relativism)1
Moral Relativism espouses that morality is the personalized construct of each individual as they interact with their environment, culture, and surroundings. No two people’s morality is identical, therefore absolute morality is just an illusion.
Let’s run a little thought experiment…
The New York Times pointed out that gossip is a universal of almost all humanity in its recent post “Studies Find That Gossip Isn’t Just Loose Talk“(2). The clinical definition of gossip in the study referenced was “the unsanctioned evaluative talk about people who aren’t present.”
The article goes on to talk about how gossip, although embarrassing if discovered, can serve a healthy societal function in warning others about potential exploitation, maintaining cultural norms, and identifying “in groups” from “out groups.”
So here is the problem, while gossip may be universal, acknowledgment that gossip is wrong is also universal. And this is the thrust of the thought experiment, if we all live with the dissonance of gossiping while knowing that it is wrong, does that imply a lack of a higher morality?
But in order to answer that question, we must first see how this paradox arises.
Cognitive Development Theory – Our Learning Brains
Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, theorized that children were like “little scientists,” learning and forming opinions about the world as they interacted with it. Children naturally observe, interpret, and judge the environment around them.(3) They form schemas, ideas that are organized by similarity, and then confirm, deny, or adjust these schemas based off of new experiences. And it is from the building of schemas, new observations, and judgements that we form our conscience and the way we view the world.
Back To Gossip
We learn from experience that it hurts when other people talk about us behind our back. We are wounded because it may mean the ill will of others, the loss of friendship, or social isolation. We soon learn that gossiping is bad.
But at the same time, we have a desire not to be cheated, taken advantage of, or put in awkward social situations. Having third hand information about another person can prove useful to us. It could prevent us from enduring future physical, social, or economic harm if we learn about people or situations to avoid. We also learn from gossip the personal failures of others and gain information on how to avoid their fate.
So on the one hand, we know that gossip is hurtful, but on the other hand, we need gossip in order to navigate the social landscape and life in general. Also, it is natural for us to form judgements in order to evaluate if we will emulate or reject another’s actions. It is in our nature.
When should we gossip?
So what then should we say about gossiping. We know that gossip hurts when it is done to us. But we also need to be warned about other people’s character and behavior in order to be successful in life. Therefore most of us conclude that we should live a life in which other people are not warranted in gossiping about us and we should talk about and listen to others only when we feel it is necessary. Most of us reserve talking about others to a close set of friends and family.
So, in many ways, we define derogatory gossip not as the information receive but by who is giving it. We would not say, for instance, that our spouse was gossiping about a coworker because he or she was talking to us about their bad day. But we would take issue if a fellow coworker was talking to us about another coworker in order for us to like them over the coworker. We take issue with the motive of the information given, not the information itself. We learn to look to motive instead of arbitrary action.
Just because we parse the action from the motive when it comes to gossip, does that make morality relative? Just because we form our conscience over time through environmental and cultural encounters, does that make morality relative?
I think the answer to both of those questions is, “no.” If you look at our conscience as a type of sense, it may prove useful. We have the sense of sight, and for many centuries our sight told us that the earth was flat. From our sense of sight, people formed different opinions about the earth. Some said that it was disk shaped, others that it was like a convex shield, and others that it was supported by gods. All of these opinions was formed by using our senses. It was not until we used more abstract abservations and reasoning that we deduced that the earth was spherical. And an objective truth was perceived.
Our conscience helps construct a template of schemas, rules, and norms with which to navigate the culture that we are in. It provides precedents based off of past experiences that we can use to make future decisions that will potentially be successful. But I suggest that it can be used to perceive a larger world – that of the spirit.
Universal Truths Found Through Subjective Means
Many faiths, including Christianity, affirm that the Primum Legem or Fist Law of the spiritual world is reliance on God. And I would posit, that anything we call sin is a reliance on our own devices instead of trusting in God.
But in naturalistic terms, sin is an improper survival strategy that results in adverse consequences for us. But are these two definitions mutually exclusive? Or do they help us reach a single, unified conclusion?
In the case of our thought experiment, we learn through life that there are two kinds of gossip. We use derogatory gossip to secure a more favorable standing with others or tear others down in order to supplant their position. We hope that it will provide a more secure future for ourselves by gaining friends or a more exalted position within the community. But we soon learn that others have a dim view of this because they know it is only a matter of time before you do it to them. This is the natural consequences of gossip.
Similarly, on the spiritual side, we learn that derogatory gossip is an impatience to God working on our behalf. We take vengeance on people with our mouth. We promote selfish agendas with biting words. We do not trust God to humble those that hurt us or wait for God to reward us with honor and standing within the community. Our impatience leads us to rely on ourselves and whatever shortcut we can muster.
On the flip side, healthy “gossip” is talking to your close friends and family about another persons actions to warn, to evaluate, to commiserate, and to reinforce the norms. This serves to bolster morality and solidarity of the community.
All this comes down to the motives of our actions. Trusting or not trusting God can look the same on the outside. But just as we learned to parse what is and what is not gossip based on motive, we learn to do the same with trusting God. In this case, the subjective truth of our conscience can uncover an objective truth of reliance on God.
By understanding what hurts us in society, we can uncover our arrested development in the spiritual world. Just as in the case of the flat/round earth debate, it was the observations on the ground and higher reasoning that resulted in uncovering an unforeseen objective truth. We use the observations of our conscience and the logic and reasoning of Scripture to help us uncover how to walk with God.
In way of final thoughts
Moral relativism has it right in one respect. Each of us forms our own opinions and moral compass over time. We do not all have identical mores and morals. Just as in the case of eyes, because our bodies form separately, know one really knows if the color I call orange is the color you call orange. The eyes and brain are organic and therefore a little “messy” with no straight lines or complete duplicate copies.
But that does not negate objective truth. Just because we may disagree as to what constitutes orange, it does not mean that there cannot be a specific frequency in the electromagnetic wavelength spectrum that is objectively designated as orange – so long as there is One who can objectively designate it.
And, oddly enough, we know of One who has the capacity to objectively designate right and wrong, left from right, and yes, orange, from not orange. He transcends our universe and views all time from beginning to end. He alone is able to be objective and therefore be our Judge. While our truth on earth may be subjective, His transcendent truth is absolute and objective. And He can judge “trusting” from “not trusting” Him.
And our conscience has been built in such a way to subjectively search for His objective truth. It is by understanding how to survive in a community that we first learn how to walk with our Creator. It is by learning how to empathize and have compassion that we learn that trusting God, while illogical at the time, is the only logic we need to get us through. Yes, moral relativism is right that we build our conscience subjectively, but it does not negate a much large, objective Truth.
1 Holy Trinity New Rochelle
2 New York Times
3 Psychology In Action, Karen Huffman, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2007